WHAT’S THE TRICK?
So you wanna write a book, eh? Want to know the secret to getting it done? Read on!
When I tell people that I'm a writer, I get a variety of different reactions, many of them not so nice, ranging from boredom to disdain to doubt, and everything in between. But when people find out that I have finished a novel and that it has actually been published, I get a much different response. For some odd reason, it seems to give me more credibility and inevitably, many of them divulge that they, too, have aspirations of being a writer, but don’t quite know where to begin. The most common comments I get are as follows:
“How’d you do it?”
“I've always wanted to write a book; I just wish I knew how.”
“I have so many great ideas for stories, but I don’t know where to start.”
“I started writing a book, too, but I can’t seem to finish it.”
“I wish I knew the secret to writing a book.”
I have to smile when I hear comments like these because, at one time or another, I’ve probably made those same remarks. But the truth is, when it comes to sitting down and writing a book, there is no trick. There is no special secret. There is not even a magic formula. It just takes two normal, everyday “D” words: Desire and Dedication. Sounds trite, I know, but sometimes the truth is trite. Without real desire, there will be no dedication. Without real dedication, there will be no book with you listed as the author. Enjoying writing isn’t enough. Jotting down a few words every so often when you are in the mood, is not enough. You’ve got to really, really want to do it, and you have to be willing to sacrifice time and effort to get it done. Otherwise, you are doomed from the get-go. There’s a big difference between wishing for something and really wanting something. Take for example the big Bike Race to be held in my neck of the woods in July. I love to ride my bike. I especially love to ride on a cool day, when the is sun shining and a nice gentle breeze is blowing, and I don’t have to sweat my butt off or fight the weather. Double especially if the place where I’m riding doesn't have too many hills, and is not too challenging. Triple especially if the scenery is pleasant, and there is no traffic (the Boardwalk, for instance). On the day of the Big Bike Race, I will probably go and watch At one point, I might be inspired enough to say something like, “Gee, I wish I could compete in a Bike Race too,” or “Wow, I wish I had all that cool gear and could handle a bike like those people.” But the fact of the matter is, while it’s a nice idea, it’s just a wish. In reality, when I consider all the preparation and hard work that is necessary to compete in and finish a grueling bike race, it’s a deal buster. Could I do it? Sure—physically, I have the potential. Will I do it? No, because it’s not that much of a priority in my life. I don’t want it that badly. I don’t have a strong enough desire to drive the dedication necessary to commit myself to the grueling hours of hard work necessary to get in good enough condition to compete in such an event.
It’s that way with writing. If you really want to finish writing the book you've had tucked away under your bed since you wore bell bottoms, then you will do it—so long as you have the big Double D: Desire and Dedication. That’s something you have to decide first. Quite honestly, writing a book can be hard work, and it takes time a lot of time. Sometimes, it can be tedious and not all that much fun. Ultimately, though, for me, there is no bigger kick that watching a story in my mind come to life on paper. It’s an astounding, amazing, and nearly miraculous experience, second only to childbirth (and sometimes, just as painful). When I stare at a blank page on a computer screen, I see sheer, unadulterated potential—it’s exciting, it drives me, and when I’m in the middle of writing a book, it comes pretty darn close to being an addiction. In fact, do you know why I haven’t Blogged in 95 days (or at least that's what my GoDaddy meter tells me)? I’m deep into the sequel to TURN OF THE SENTRY, and it’s all I really want to do. My kids have to remind me they are still here and haven't gone off to college just yet. My husband is getting darn sick of take-out. The hamster’s cage has gotten so dirty, she’s hired a cleaning lady. The dogs have started taking themselves for walks on the treadmill. I have to be reminded to shower, eat, get up and move so I don’t throw a blood clot…well, I exaggerate a little; no one ever has to remind me to eat. But you get the picture. It’s what I want to be doing—it’s my Desire, and the Dedication follows naturally.
Now, after reading all that, if you still think you want to write a book—if you’re pretty darn sure that you’ve got the Double D—then keep reading, because even with Desire and Dedication, it’s easy to get stuck. And while I have no secret recipe for writing a best-selling novel (and if any of you do have that particular recipe, don’t be a hog—pass it along!) I do have a few tips to help you move forward and finally get those words on paper. These four strategies have helped me stay on track:
Know Your Points Some writers draft meticulous outlines for their novels, some just have a sketchy idea of what’s going to happen. Despite what others may tell you, I propose that there is no right or wrong way—it depends upon your own taste and style. For me personally, outlines don’t work. It saps most of the fun out of writing. I like to be surprised with what happens in my story. Still, I do strongly suggest that you at least know your Plot Points. You need to have an idea of where the story starts, where it will end, and some of the major milestones that happen in between. It gives you something of a general road map to work with, and then it’s up to you to fill in the lines in between. I’m not saying you need turn by turn directions, like some sort of literary GPS (unless writing that way suits your style), but you do need some dots to connect along your route. Otherwise, you could wind up wandering aimlessly, never getting anywhere with the story, and that will make you give up. Of course, unless your Moses, nothing is written in stone, and the plot points can change or develop (or even disappear entirely) along the way, but that’s okay—despite what my first grade teacher tried to drum into my head, there’s always more than one way to connect the dots. But having them there will give you progressive handholds to reach for when climbing onward with your story.
Know Your Characters Always remember that you don’t tell the story—your characters do. Regardless of what point of view or perspective you choose for your book, never forget that your main characters are the ones who drive your story. You may be the navigator on this road trip, but they are behind the wheel, and they direct the lines which connect your plot points. In order to give your characters that kind of control, you have to know them and trust them. For that, you first have to be interested in them. Unless you are genuinely interested in your characters—what they are like, what they do in their spare time, what motivates them, what moves them, what’s their favorite flavor of ice cream, and so on, your story will likely become one-dimensional and tedious and eventually stall out. Chances are, you will be spending a lot of time with your characters along this journey, so get to know them first—take them to lunch, buy them a drink, ask them their opinions on politics. I know, I know; some of you may feel silly talking to characters that exist only in your head, but it’s okay—just don’t talk out loud (unless you have a Blue Tooth hooked over your ear—then go for it). When you develop a relationship with your characters, you are invested in them, and it will really help to fire up that all-important second “D” of Dedication.
Dance Like Nobody’s Watching And write like nobody will ever read it. Sometimes when I write my first draft, I find my mind wandering into the “what will they think” bog. I start wondering if I have a sharp enough hook, or whether I’m painting the right picture for the readers, or if I'm burdening them with too many adjectives, or whether I'm giving them the right information at the right times, and so forth. That’s a great way to get stuck in the muck. Free yourself from the worry of what other people will think by playing the “it’s just for me” game. In other words, write the story that you want to read, and write it as if you are the only person on Earth who will ever read it. Ultimately, this may or may not be true, but pretending that it is can be your gateway to freedom! There will be plenty of time to worry about the details later, and there will be many revisions to come where you can polish the writing and hone the story. But your first draft should be your time to explore and have fun.
Stick to Your Limits This point, although last, is oh so desperately important. You MUST set a word limit for yourself—a minimum amount that you will write on a daily or weekly basis. Personally, I prefer a daily limit—weekends excluded—it keeps me honest. But everyone is different and you have to find a limit that suits your schedule and you need to keep it realistic. Don’t expect to sit down and do 10,000 words a day. Granted, I know some amazing writers who can do that in a blink, but not many. Start with something like 500 words a day (or 2,500 words a week, if you do it five out of seven days). Or maybe 300 words every other day. How about 600 words on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays? The idea is, find something that will work for you and that you know you can live with. Then STICK TO IT. It’s like going to the gym—when you first start, it will be easy, and you will be pumped up and motivated. But then you will reach a point when you get a little tired of the routine, and you're tempted to find reasons not meet your limit. That's where the Dedication part comes in. Car broke down? I don’t care. Stomach bug? So what? Relatives are visiting? Not an excuse (actually, for me, it's an excuse to write more). Poison Ivy all over your hands? Type with your toes! Okay, I am exaggerating again, but the point is, don’t give in to excuses. Do all in your power to stick to your commitment. Some days the words will flow like gravy on roast beef, and you will write above and beyond your limit. But there will also be those days when the words will flow like frozen molasses, and you'll want to give it a rest, knowing tomorrow will be a better day for writing. Don't succumb to that lie. Write anyway. Even if it’s gibberish, put something on paper. Your Muse is like a spoiled child—the more you let it play hide and seek, the more it will elude you when you need it most. Force yourself to write even when uninspired and eventually, your Muse will get jealous and come out of hiding. And, if you stick with your limit, you are guaranteed an end in sight. For instance, if you write 500 words a day, five days a week, in 36 weeks (that’s about nine months, people) you’ll have a 90,000 word first draft novel completed. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, I can tell you, it feels even better.
Of course, the first draft of a novel is only the beginning and there are many revisions on the road to publication. But don’t let that scare you. A first draft is a great accomplishment in and of itself. At the very least, if you stick with it, relying on your Double D’s, pretty soon people will look at you and say, “Wow, I always wanted to write a book—what’s the trick?”
As always, that's just my opinion.
A. M. Boyle